Spot these wines on the shelf and you might guess they were Italian, with their simple, old-fashioned labels with a woodcut-look winery scene, a small logo that resembles a blob of red sealing wax, Italian grape varieties and even a winery name that ends in vowels, <b>Pietra Santa</b>.
Pull the cork and taste the wine and you still might wonder, as their earthy, tart and complex and very food-friendly flavors show what seems to be a distinct Italian accent.
But these Italians, as it turns out, hail from California, from the relatively unfamiliar Cienega Valley near Hollister in San Benito County, in the hills well south of San Francisco, a few miles inland from Monterey Bay. Wine maker Alessio Carli, a native of Siena in Tuscany, may be the guy to thank for that fine Italian style, producing intriguing wines that break the stereotype of "New World" California versus "Old World" European wines.
A while back, I reviewed an intriguing red blend from Pietra Santa called Sacred Stone (a literal translation of the winery's Italian moniker). In the past couple of weeks, I've encountered the winery again twice, as a monthly selection from our friends at California Wine Club, then again being poured by winery reps at a trade tasting here in Louisville. With all that coincidence, naturally I was eager to break open the wine club's package and give these Italian-style goodies a try. Here are my tasting reports:
<table border="0" align="right" width="190"><tr><td><img src="http://www.wineloverspage.com/graphics1/pietrasasso.jpg" border="1" align="right"></td></tr></table>Pietra Santa 2000 California Sasso Rosso ($10)
A very fine value, this odd blend brings together a little Italian Sangiovese and Barbera with the not-so-Italian Carignane, Merlot, Cabernet and Zinfandel. It is as good a $10 wine as I've opened in a long while. Very dark garnet, almost black at the center, it breathes a lovely mix of cherry and berry notes with a touch of Chianti-like spice. Juicy and ripe, it's no mere fruit bomb but a mouth-watering combination of tart-cherry fruit and snappy acidity, held in the bottle long enough to develop a bit of earthy complexity. It's not quite a Chianti clone, but certainly a California salute to the Italian tradition. It made a splendid match with a simple rice pilaf with chicken and mushrooms. (Sept. 10, 2006)
<table border="0" align="left" width="140"><tr><td><img src="http://www.wineloverspage.com/graphics1/pietradolcetto.jpg" border="1" align="right"></td></tr></table>Pietra Santa 2000 Cienega Valley Dolcetto ($18)
This is a very dark reddish-purple wine, almost black. Black plum, blueberry and licorice scents, typical of Dolcetto, add a pleasant earthy "barnyard" note in the background that seems more "Old World" than "New." Plum and berry flavors are consistent with the nose, firm acidity and drying tannins. A very good wine, balanced and complex, reminiscent of a Piemontese Dolcetto but frankly carrying its years much better than most Italian Dolcettos would. It paired very nicely with natural grass-fed beef. (Sept. 13, 2006)
<B>WEB LINKS AND WHERE TO FIND THESE WINES:</B>
The detailed and informative Pietra Santa Website offers direct sales and its own wine-buying club, although the 2000 Sasso Rosso has been supplanted by the 2001.
California Wine Club offers the two Pietra Santa wines reported here to club members at $32.95 plus shipping; case re-orders are $10.50 per bottle.
Finally, to find other vendors for Pietra Santa wines, you can check the databases on Wine-Searcher.com.